The jury's still out, really, on whether Austen is turning in her grave. On the one hand, as By Jove! Theatre Company earnestly point out, pantomime is a time-honoured British tradition, old enough for the author to have attended some herself. On the other hand, I can't imagine she'd be too thrilled to be impersonated on stage by a simpering "Good Fairy", endearing enough in her own right but completely bereft of Austen's savage wit, defending the marriage-plot from the machinations of a cackling Charles Dickens.
The framing device, in which Austen tries to steer the Bennett sisters towards Happily Ever After while Dickens throws antagonists Caroline Bingley and Mr Wickham in their paths, is fun for a bit but becomes tiresome and repetitive by the interval. It is also gleefully and unapologetically anachronistic, given that Dickens was only a year old when Pride and Prejudice was published, and only five when Austen died. Alexander Woodward sneers and flourishes his way through Dickens' villainous plots with plenty of vigour but without much humour, nor any genuine sense of menace. There's a cursory attempt to treat Dickens and Austen's bickering as a battle of the sexes, and she eventually insists that he admit "women are just as good as men." It's quite appealing, but a proto-feminist Austen in this postmodern genre would be more fun if she were a bit more belligerent; here, she's like a long-suffering primary school teacher wheedling an apology out of a recalcitrant nine-year-old.
Nonetheless, though at first glance it bears little resemblance to conventional pantomime fare, the novel works pretty well in this format. Even the canonical Mrs Bennett has 'Pantomime Dame' written all over her, and James Walker-Black has a whale of a time making her as grotesque as possible. The audience are called upon at regular intervals to chorus "Calm down, Mrs Bennett", when she flies off the handle. She also, apologising for the absence of Maggie Smith, stands in as Lady Catherine deBourgh, with a hilarious caricature of Smith's "Professor McGonagall" accent.
Set pieces like the episode of Take Me Out (And Marry Me) which introduces us to the odious Mr Collins come off well, but it's the quieter jokes that really sell it – nobody ever comments on the fact that Lydia and Kitty Bennett are sock puppets, but it's an inspired decision, and actress Chloe Wilcox manages to play both, as well as ugly duckling Mary, and steal a lot of scenes from the flashier performers. Joe Feeney's Darcy does a good line in supercilious eyebrow-raising, and gamely gets a series of buckets of water chucked at him in the hilarious attempt to stage the vital, apocryphal "lake scene". The panto is at its best when playing with the cultural status of its source text: besides the lake scene, it also works in a rousing tribute to Bridget Jones.
While the main cast are an engaging bunch, the Chorus are often a bit redundant. Every now and then they're called upon to sing (pleasantly, but not very confidently) Regency makeovers of numbers by the Spice Girls, Bruno Mars, One Direction and Rebecca Black, but they're mostly there to move furniture on and off stage. Meanwhile, Todd James provides piano accompaniment and (in my favourite musical interlude) sings a genteel cover of the Black Eyed Peas "I Gotta Feeling" as everyone files into Bingley's ballroom.
Pride and Prejudice, the Panto has a lot of fun moments; however, particularly in the first half it often loses momentum between set-pieces, and a few performances are rough around the edges. It's charming enough for its faults to be largely forgivable, though, and it makes a fun Christmas excursion, though perhaps not for the most zealous devotees of the original novel.